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Ethics and Technology
TU DelftTU EindhovenUniversity of TwenteWageningen University
Ethics and Technology


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Technology and Human Development. A Capability Approach

Applying the capability approach of Nussbaum and Sen to technology, engineering and design
August 2009 - September 2015

Jeroen van den Hoven

Some influential theories of distributive justice, fairness and equality, like that of John Rawls, discuss fair distribution in terms of shares of primary goods available to people. The main criticism of philosopher and Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen of these views is that it is not the goods that are ultimately important, but what they allow us to do and be, the kind of lives they enable us to live. Giving everyone a laptop or some other piece of technology is no good in and by itself, according to Sen’s approach. Some people will be able to make good use of it and increase their level of functioning, but others who are illiterate or do not have access to reliable power supply cannot possibly convert their possession of the technology into anything useful in their lives. Human functionings and capabilities are therefore at the centre of Sen’s work, referred to as the capability approach. Although it has been widely adopted in development thinking, hardly any work has been done on the interrelations between the capability approach and technology. This is remarkable, since technology by definition aims at expanding human capabilities. This project investigates how the capability approach can be utilized in (thinking about) technological innovation and engineering design. The context of application for this project is innovation for the so-called Base of the Pyramid (BoP) or the poor in developing countries. Case studies are taken from three engineering areas: ICTs, healthcare/medical technology and sustainable human settlements.


This project has been funded with a grant of 550.000 euro by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), as part of their grant program called 'Responsible Innovation'.

Below only a selection of the publications of 3TU.Ethics members in the project are listed. For publications of other project members, please visit their websites (see above).

Research partners

This research project is a joint effort of 4TU.Ethics and:
Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft
Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Indian Institute of Science

More information can be found here.